The technology and teamwork behind VSS Unity

Ever wondered how to build a spaceship? James Flynn, avionics engineering manager at The Spaceship Company, explains some of the technology that is going into Virgin Galactic’s spaceships…

The word 'avionics' comes from 'aviation' and 'electronics'. Avionics monitor and display complex systems involving wiring, electronics, batteries, etc. – pretty much anything on the vehicle that electrons flow through. Our team at The Spaceship Company develops avionics hardware and software for SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo.

These systems capture an incredible amount of information and organise and display it so that it can be monitored in real-time by our pilots in the air and our mission controllers on the ground – helping our expert team operate these vehicles safely and at peak performance. Useful data that we measure include air speeds, Mach number, and altitude; once the rocket motor is installed for powered flight tests, we will also monitor pressures and temperatures during all phases of rocket motor burn.

Whenever VSS Unity, our SpaceShipTwo currently undergoing flight tests, is in the air, we collect a lot of data. Not only is that information used by the pilots in real time, but it also provides mountains of information that can be used by our engineers, technicians, pilots, and safety personnel after the flight to validate our models and prediction about vehicle and crew performance in all flight conditions. The analysis of that data helps us design additional tests on the ground, in our simulators, or in the air that need to happen before the start of commercial service to space.

As we completed the build of VSS Unity, our aerodynamics group and pilots decided we would get the best results and the safest vehicle if we built our own bespoke flight displays, ensuring that our flight crew and mission control room would get immediate and precise readings of the specific variables that matter most for our system – which, as you can imagine, are a bit different for a supersonic, rocket-powered spaceplane than they are for a standard aircraft. Although our system is designed so that our pilots could safely bring the vehicle home without this data, putting the right information directly at their fingertips in a clear and organised fashion allows them to do more on each test, helping us move more quickly and safely through our flight test program. 

A traditional flight display manufacturer would have taken a year to three years to build, qualify and deliver what we needed to complete our flight test program. The Spaceship Company is innovative and nimble, and we have a ton of in-house expertise and capabilities so we designed, built and tested a flight test display from scratch – in two months.

No matter how advanced your technology, a mission’s success is determined by teamwork and collaboration. And teamwork and collaboration were essential for our contribution to VSS Unity’s flight test program. We relied on our colleagues in software and hardware, including 3D printing for the metal back. 

We relied on software testing and environmental testing. The best way to make sure a part doesn’t break in flight is to try your best to deliberately break it on the ground, so our systems had to be shaken at the vibration table and get hot in the oven!

We designed the circuit board, and our safety team, quality engineers and pilots gave us feedback through the whole process, including after it was installed and tested in our flight simulator. Finally, our FAA Diamond Award winning maintainers installed it into our spaceship. 

The Spaceship Company’s avionics team has moved on to the next challenge, a hand controller that will improve how our pilots interface with the reaction control system. And we will continue to collaborate with the entire team to ensure Unity’s success.

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